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3 Seahawks Questions: Can the offensive line slow down Aaron Donald?

The Seahawks face a tough challenge in Rams All-Pro DT Aaron Donald. (Getty)

Sunday could bring a big shakeup in the NFC West. But with any luck – and a Seahawks win – that won’t happen.

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The 6-2 Seahawks are tied for the best record in the NFC, but it’s a jumbled group atop the league’s best division. The Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams are both 5-3. A Rams win would let Los Angeles leapfrog Seattle into first place; a win by both the Rams and the Cardinals (who will face off against the Buffalo Bills) would push Seattle to third place.

That might not be a devastating blow, especially with games against all three NFC West teams remaining, but it would certainly weaken Seattle’s grip on a top seed. That’s why this week may be the most important game yet for the Seahawks, who desperately need to bounce back from an ugly loss to the Bills. They’ve got the league’s top-scoring offense, but the key to a win lies with the defense.

Here are three questions this team must answer Sunday:

Can the offensive line keep Aaron Donald at bay?

Dave Wyman explained this perfectly on The Huddle Thursday (Hour 1 here and Hour 2 here): There are some opposing players who are so good that you call them “extra meeting guys” … and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a two extra meetings guy.

Donald has been the best defensive player in football. He’s the only player in the league to be a Pro Bowler and First-Team All-Pro in each of the last five seasons. (Coincidentally, the next closest player is Bobby Wagner, who has been a Pro Bowler and All Pro in each of the last four seasons and also in 2014).

Donald has nine sacks this year. That’s more than the Jacksonville Jaguars have as a team. The Seahawks have taken a big step forward on the offensive line but are still allowing three sacks per game – or about as many as the Rams’ defense averages per game (3.1).

Russell Wilson and the offense will have their work cut out for them against one of the league’s stingiest defenses. The Rams are allowing just over 19 points per game. Keeping Wilson protected – and keeping Donald at bay – is their best chance to surpass that total.

Can the Hawks’ defense rattle Goff?

Jared Goff had his worst outing of the season the last time the Rams took the field. In a Week 8 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Goff threw two interceptions and lost another two fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

Miami’s defensive stats weren’t overwhelming – nine quarterback hits and two sacks – but the front seven brought consistent pressure and batted down several passes (including two consecutive batted passes on the same drive). A defensive score helped keep an unusually low-scoring Sean McVay offense playing from behind.

If there’s one thing Seattle did right in their loss to the Bills, it was sack the quarterback. They registered a season-high seven sacks of Josh Allen. It didn’t matter much, thanks to breakdowns in communication and execution in the secondary, but that same aggressiveness would suit them well against Goff.

Can the defense seize an opportunity?

Seattle’s offense will have its hands full with the Rams’ stifling defense. I’d expect them to score a season-low in points, and it’s going to fall on the Hawks’ defense to keep things manageable.

That matchup brings a few opportunities for Seattle. They won’t be drastically outmatched – the Seahawks offense and Rams defense will be the two best units on the field. The Rams offense is sixth overall in yards, which is flashy, and still lean on misdirection and a bevy of talents at wide receiver. But they haven’t been able to take full advantage of scoring opportunities.

The Rams are scoring 24.1 points per game and are 17th in red zone scoring (consider that the Seahawks are first in points per game and, not coincidentally, first in red zone scoring). The Seahawks defense has struggled on third down and in the red zone, but they’ve shown an ability to make big plays and gets stops when it matters most. Sure, you can’t count on something like that every time. But you know the potential is there and stars like Jamal Adams, Bobby Wagner and Carlos Dunlap are feeling refreshed – and that’s enough hope for fans watching Sunday.

Make no mistake, this is the toughest matchup I have for Seattle through nine weeks. It is, quite simply, the best defense Wilson will have faced so far. But if the defense can hold the Rams to fewer than 20 points, the Seahawks offense may be too much for L.A. to handle.

Prediction: 24-21, Seahawks

Follow Stacy Rost on Twitter.

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